One of the most important conflicts that many Orthodox Jews face in the 21st century is the clash between authority and autonomy. Orthodox society is largely based upon following the tradition that has been handed down to us, and that tradition is often seen to be largely in the possession of great scholars. Accordingly, it seems like a violation of Torah principles to ignore the directives of gedolei Torah and to do what we want instead. On the other hand, autonomy – the ability and right and even obligation to make our own decisions – is one of the most cherished values of Western society. But autonomy is not just a modern value that is necessarily in conflict with Torah thinking; in fact, autonomy is also an important Jewish value, as well. That makes the question of the clash between autonomy and authority something that we likely deal with almost every day.
As Orthodox Jews, we dare not ignore the tradition and do whatever we want without regard for what anyone else says… yet many of us are loathe to sacrifice the right to think independently. This raises many questions: what is the definition of rabbinic authority? How autonomous can and should each of us be? Do I have the right to make halachic decisions on my own? What about in areas of hashkafa, or public policy? Can the gedolim insist that I act a certain way – and do I have the right to defy them?
Scott asked these and many other questions to Rav Chaim Ozer Chait, and he offered some fascinating insights, as well as stories from his time studying under Rav Moshe Feinstein and others.
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